Help me get to know my grill better.
April 17, 2009 8:46 AM   Subscribe

I want to understand how to use my charcoal grill better. What are your awesome grilling tips for charcoal grills?

This is my grill.

Right now, I've basically got two modes, super hot, and not quite warm enough. I want to be able to cook w/more nuance, and for longer periods of time. Right now, I can cook: boneless chicken breasts, hot dog/hamburgers, and steaks. I would like to be able to cook cut-up chicken, or salmon, or larger cuts of meat. I would like to be able to grill halved peaches, which seem like they take a long time. I'd like to be able to grill other things, which escape me right now.

The current scenario is: I have a chimney that I use to start charcoal with. I tried hardwood charcoal first, but it was reduced to ash too quickly. Now I use the standard Kingsford (?) variety. I wait until it turns grey, dump it on the bottom grate, and shove it all over to cover one half of the bottom grate about two inches deep. So there I have super-heated side, and no-heat side. Bottom vents open all the way, because as I mentioned, I'm not cooking with much dexterity here.

So, some specific questions I'd like to know about, and I'm interested in any other tips/techniques/secrets:

1.) If I'm supposed to avoid fire at all costs, how do I cook for half an hour or more without adding more charcoal? It seems like it gets reduced to ash and requires more charcoal, but then there's this very small flap where you'd pour more charcoal in, but once you pour it in a) it's all going to be in a pile, so why not take the grill off and distribute it? and b) it will then be fresh charcoal.

2.) What are some better ways to gauge and control the heat than "really hot" and "not hot enough"? In the kitchen, for example, if I want to know how hot a frying pan is, I flick a little water on it--that gives me some idea of whether it's searing (scallops) or low-moderate (eggs). How can I evaluate this outside?

3.) If I want to start expanding my grilling horizons, what should I try first? Clams? Oysters? Spare ribs?

Generally speaking, I'm a good cook and can cook a lot of things, and I like all food. (Except sauerkraut, which holds a special place in my universe as the only food I've found 100% disgusting. So, please. No grilled sauerkraut.)
posted by A Terrible Llama to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I've just started out with charcoal grilling, and I'm having the same nuclear vs. not-hot-enough problem. I do have a couple of rules of thumb for gauging heat, though. Alton Brown suggests throwing an ice cube on the grill and seeing how long it takes to melt - if you always use the same size cube, you'll be able to use that as a measurement. Personally, rather than always having ice cubes around when I'm grilling, I hold my hand a couple of inches over the grill and see how long it takes before I have to pull it back.

I've also experimented with a few methods of cooking for longer periods, and the only working one so far has been the dump-in-a-crapload-of-charcoal-at-the-beginning method. Once I have a big heap of crazy hot charcoal, I start the food at the edges, then move it in over the course of about an hour as the coals cool.

Other than that, I'll be watching this post eagerly!
posted by pocams at 8:56 AM on April 17, 2009

1.) Get an oven thermometer so you can measure the temp at the cooking grate.
2.) Build a multi-level fire, and don't open the vents all the way until the charcoal has burnt down more.
3.) To test your temperature without using a a thermometer, you can hold your hand close to the grate and count how many seconds you can hold it before pulling away in pain. It should never really be hotter than three.
4.) A good grilling cookbook gives me lots of ideas. How To Cook Meat is my current favorite.
posted by mkb at 8:59 AM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

In my efforts to make the perfect smoked pork shoulder, I found an amazingly-detailed set of instructions, which I've followed to great effect. it's very multi-staged--there's some direct heat, some indirect heat, added coals, added wood, etc.

The only thing I've changed is that I do not use a second grill to start new coals. Like you, I prefer briquettes, but I do use the natural lump stuff when I add coals to the fire; the lumps start just fine when added to an existing coal bed. the little flaps on the side of the grill are plenty big enough to add just a few lumps at a time.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:06 AM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Since you've got a Weber, you need a hinged grate. It makes it much easier to add more charcoal when you need it. Start another batch in the chimney and let it burn down to ash grey. Flip one of the sides open and pour carefully. I use a fireplace poker to redistribute it a little since it tends to pour in one big pile.

OK on preview, it sounds like you already have the hinged grate.
posted by advicepig at 9:12 AM on April 17, 2009

I've used this as my go-to reference for everything grill-related, and I've never been disappointed. This book covers everything.

I've used it with charcoal, propane (taste the meat, not the heat), rotisserie, beer can chicken, plank-grilled fish, kabobs, ribs, etc. It's my first point of reference any time I bring home a new cut of meat from the butcher.
posted by mattybonez at 9:24 AM on April 17, 2009

seconding Steve Raichlen. That dude is the grill master.
Definately pick up that book, or if your local PBS station carries it, check out his show "BBQ U" (wow you can actually watch portions on line)
posted by ShawnString at 9:49 AM on April 17, 2009

No reason why you can't use the vents (top, bottom), in combo with the oven thermometer suggested above, to experiment bringing the temp up and down. The way I do it is, bottom vents half open all the time, and top vent full open, part open, or closed, to regulate heat from most to least hot.

I also use the chimney starter, and load up one side of the grill to give me a cooler place to put thinner cuts that get done first. If I want to do indirect grilling (low heat, long time) I'll use one of these to minimize the grill area impacted by the direct heat.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:51 AM on April 17, 2009

Best answer: This has some of the ideas listed above, including a variation of your split sides technique. We use charcoal to bake in a "box-oven" while camping, and there is a ratio of briquettes to temp, that I just can't remember. I do remember that it was no big deal to add a couple briquettes at a time, which would probably solve your #1 question. Sure you can add more charcoal, just not all at once.
posted by purpletangerine at 10:02 AM on April 17, 2009

I was a newcomer to it last summer and spent some time labouring without a manufactured chimney starter, making my own out of a coffee can (that the advice out there always imagines you have lying around; I had to buy one). The Weber chimney starter is so much better than a roll-your-own and can be had for only a little money. Well worth it.

In one of his shows, Alton Brown sears tuna steaks directly on the coals inside the chimney starter. I might have a crack at that this year.
posted by galaksit at 10:21 AM on April 17, 2009

Best answer: You definitely need to learn fire control. This is what the bottom vent is for- that's where the fire gets its air. More air means a hotter fire. mkb mentioned keeping the bottom vent closed down a litte bit at first. This is a good idea for most everything that you don't want a blazingly hot fire for. If the fire is too hot, close the bottom vent and put the lid on for a while. That'll tame it.

Holding your hand over the grate is the time-honored method for gauging the fire's hotness. It just takes time for that information to be useful to you.

The key to Weber grills (which are the best. really, hands down the best. I have four) is to cook with the lid on. Those little suckers are like an oven, and you're losing a lot of heat that could be cooking your supper when you've got the lid off. An ancient barbecue adage tells us that "If you're lookin', you're not cookin'" It's true. Keep the lid on.

I tend toward multi-level fires for things like chicken and fish. I bank the majority of the coals on one side, then spread out a one-briquette-deep layer on the other side. I put my grillables over the thin layer, put on the lid and that's it. Turn the food if necessary. If you have no coals on the cool side, you probably won't even have to turn stuff over. This is indirect cooking, and until I discovered it, I couldn't grill chicken to save my soul.

If you want to cook the traditional barbecue meats like brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs, I suggest that you invest in a smoker. The Weber Smokey Mountain is pretty cheap as smokers go, and does a fantastic job. I have one and I love it. They're available on Amazon.

As far as expanding your grilling horizons- I'll grill just about anything. Fruit is especially good, as are veggies like squash, portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, cabbage (wrapped in foil and stuffed with garlic and butter) the list goes on and on. I love grilled shrimp (I put it in a grill wok). Any kind of sausage is good. You can cook damn near anything on a Weber kettle that you can cook on your stove or in your oven.

I really love to grill.
posted by Shohn at 11:01 AM on April 17, 2009 [7 favorites]

Also recommending Raichlen's book. Very easy and you'll keep coming back to it.

Another good grilling book that doesn't get much love is Fred Thompson's Barbecue Nation, which I thought was just terrific. It's home-cooking type recipes for appetizers, sides, mains, etc that offers a nice overview of styles and flavors. He's got another one coming out this spring focused on gas grills, fwiw.
posted by Atom12 at 11:37 AM on April 17, 2009

Every year (I believe) Cook's Illustrated comes out with a grilling and summer entertaining issue. The tips in there have really helped me improve my grilling techniques.
posted by DakotaPaul at 4:58 PM on April 17, 2009

Best answer: Seconding Shohn. I love the Weber kettle. The bottom grates and the lid are the key to heat control and the duration of the coals. I like to use hardwood charcoal started in a chimney. I dump the charcoal on one side of the kettle and close the bottom grates 75% or so. I'll cook a whole chicken on the opposite side of the coals with the lid closed for 40 minutes to an hour. I've never had to add more coal for that amount of time. For pork chops, burgers, etc., I like to cook them directly over the coals for a minute or so on each side then move them off the direct heat and close the lid. Grilled vegetables really are great.
posted by codefinger at 8:12 AM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: Quick update: this book is everything everyone said it was -- it's extremely comprehensive and has answers to all my questions and more, and it's nicely written and organized.

(Updating because I finally got around to actually ordering it a couple of weeks ago. )
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:39 PM on September 3, 2009

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